Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Continuing my education: Casablanca

I didn't go to film school. I've stated my thoughts on film school many times -- though never on this blog, so I probably should do a post just to have it on the record -- but the short version is I think it's a vestigial concept that was useful once but is now generally a waste of money, at least in terms of writing or directing. (I think programs for the more technical skills like editing, cinematography, sound and VFX are still useful because there's an element of learning the technology hand-in-hand with the technique, but that's a caveat for another day.)

My point is, for better or worse, what I know about films and filmmaking is largely self-taught. I've always believed that in order to make movies, you have to watch movies, and if there's anything in my life about which I could be considered "religious," it's probably that. I'm fortunate to have been born in the age of the video rental, and my grandparents kept a membership to a Mom & Pop video store through the 80s and 90s, just for me. My late grandfather had two VCRs, so that he could dupe the rental to another tape, and I could watch the movies over and over without having to re-rent them.1

Still, my movie-watching education has been a curriculum of my own devising, and I have many "classic" films yet to check off the list. See, for example, my being so late to the party re: The Godfather. So here's the latest in what I consider the lifelong continuation of my film education: Casablanca.

So what did I learn?

Well, just to have it said: I liked it a lot. A few re-watches and I might even love it. Well-structured, moved along at a good pace without feeling rushed. And my God, the dialogue! No wonder this movie is so oft-quoted. It's pretty theatrical, even corny sometimes -- and according to IMDB and Wikipedia, the screenwriters themselves acknowledged as much -- but somehow it just all works.

Some of the exchanges between Rick and the less scrupulous denizens of Casablanca are particularly sharp and witty, though like most of the Golden Age films, it has a certain quality to it that initially makes it feel like "very good writing" rather than "believable conversation." Part of it is no doubt the fact that every line had to be very carefully constructed to get approved under the Hays Code. Part of it is the fact that film was still fairly new, and most writers were playwrights first and had a more theatrical style.

But part of it, I think, is outside the writing and in the performance. I think part of it is the way that performers were essentially property, loaned out and traded like baseball cards, generally lacking any passion for the projects they did. They just showed up and read the lines for their day, and it has the (pleasantly) odd, workmanlike, even formal feel that I've frankly come to appreciate about the old films.

They're almost like feature-length demonstrations of the Kuleshov effect, in which you're presented with films which give you, as an audience member, very little in the way of emotional inflection; and yet by the things that the characters say and do, it stimulates your own emotions and even causes you to project emotions onto the characters who are otherwise not expressing them.2

There's not a lot of screaming, or sobbing, or contorting of faces, or even moving much faster than a brisk walk. But in that stark simplicity -- whether it was by design, or simply an inevitable result of the assembly-line nature of Golden Era filmmaking (and I suspect the latter) -- they created a canvas with strong outlines, leaving it to the audience to complete the picture. And engaging the audience, as I said just recently, is a crucial factor in whether or not they give a damn about the movie while they're sitting in their seats, to say nothing of when they leave the theatre. I can definitely see why people might prefer this style to the more raw, even if perhaps more "real," style of acting today.

A modern disciple of this style would be David Mamet, from whose book On Directing Films I apprehended "inflection" as a filmmaking term (though I don't know for certain if he coined it). He generally seems to allow a single character a single emotional outburst in his dialogue-heavy films; otherwise the performances are very calm, restrained, and straightforward. Yet in that calm, because of the situations he creates, there is somehow anger; or fear; or arrogance; uncertainty; desperation; triumph -- all created by juxtaposition of the words and images, rather than the actors actively emoting. And because the emotions are not expressed, they are breathtakingly potent, boiling beneath the surface. (I still need to do my review of last year's phenomenal Redbelt, in which I can get into this more deeply.)

This is also, I would venture a guess, why many people of my generation and younger find these kinds of movies "boring." They are not used to having to do part of the storytelling work, are used to taking emotional cues from the actors' faces and tone of voice rather than their choice of words. It is a different kind of movie, a more challenging kind of movie for both the audience and (if he's doing it intentionally) the filmmaker. It relies on both sides of the equation placing a certain degree of trust into the other, and a certain degree of effort into the creation of something that can become intensely personal to everyone who views it. And it keeps the movie alive and relevant, because part of its vibrancy comes from the viewer, not from the screen.

In short, I learned for myself why Casablanca is a classic. I'm glad that I watched this before many other films, because a less-quotable film may not have caught my attention and helped me understand my role in the filmmaking experience -- both expanding it as a viewer, and perhaps contracting it when I'm in the hot seat. I think I will appreciate films of the era more, having experienced Casablanca first, and I do think it will improve my own filmmaking. It deserves its place in the pantheon of great films.

Instead of closing out this post with one of the old standard quotes -- "looking at you, kid," "beautiful friendship," etc. -- I'll go with one that Peter Lorre's character says in his one scene in the film (though I bet they used his name prominently in the advertising).

I use it because I think it relates perfectly to the odd way that the actors' and filmmakers' dispassionate, occasionally even hostile relationship with Golden Age material could sometimes, somehow, produce films of profound, lasting truth and power:

You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca. But somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.

  1. That's right, my grandfather was pirating movies decades before it was cool. He even duplicated the FBI warning telling you not to do that, the deliciousness of which I appreciated when I got older.

    On a footnote side-note: despite my grandfather being perfectly capable of understanding how to daisy-chain two VCRs together and having one record to another, while still outputting the movie to the television so I could watch and dupe simultaneously, the clocks on both VCRs flashed 12:00 for the entirety of my formative years.

  2. The Kuleshov effect technically only refers to two images juxtaposed, via editing, without inflection, or any sort of visual "editorializing" telling you what to think; and yet their juxtaposition creates an implied statement or emotion. But I would say that this applies equally to two lines of dialogue presented in the same manner.


*_*Antoine*_* said...

Casablanca ... not my cup of tea. Can't believe it's number 2 on the AFI list, but hey. Some movies grow on you over time. Some do not.

TheGamut said...

Why set the clock on the VCR if there's another one nearby? When the power goes out, it'll just go back to 12:00 (on most older models -- not that they're not all old tech these days).

There was another clock nearby. Yes?

Let it be known that IMHO some people have innate abilities. It seems cliché to me, but I also believe it is true. Your ability to recognize the patterns in movie making without formal education (that essentially teaches old tactics to a new generation IMHO) leads me to believe you're one of those innate people.

(I'm awfully IMHOated. No?)

Rin said...

I remember a lot of Golden Age films that my dad sat me down to watch, probably in response to the more modern films that were coming out around my teenage years. This one stands out with only a few others.

I need to re-watch more Golden Era films. To the Netflix!